Rejoicing with the Risen Lord

An Easter Sermon

Anyone here ever read Charlotte’s Web?  While many of you may remember the overall plot of EB White’s classic book, I suspect the beginning has gotten a bit fuzzy for most of you.  Fern—the delightful girl who befriends the farm animals—sleepily asks where her Pa is going with the ax one morning when she come down for breakfast.  Her mother explains that some pigs were born overnight and that one of pigs is a runt.  “It’s very small and weak, and it will never amount to anything,” her mother says.  “So your father has decided to do away with it.”  Fern will have nothing to do with this and wakes up quickly.  She runs down to the barn lickity split  and stops her dad from killing that poor pig.  Later that day while she’s at school she decides to name him Wilbur, and she takes wonderful care of him.  It’s only later, after that pig has grown quite a bit, that Wilbur makes his way to Zuckerman’s farm up the road.

Photo Credit: land_der_tiere Flickr via Compfight cc

Wilbur soon discovers that farms aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. He can’t find a friend to play with among the other animals and loneliness sets in.  He cries himself to sleep one night when a voice tells him that in the morning she will be his friend.  At the sliver of dawn, he asks all of the other animals if they were the one who had spoken to him the night before, but they all tell him to go away.  Finally the same voice calls out to Wilbur, “Salutations!”  White describes what happened next in this way, “Wilbur jumped to his feet. ‘Salu-what?’ he cried. ‘Salutations’ repeated the voice. ‘What are they, and where are you?’ screamed Wilbur. ‘Please, please, tell we where you are. And what are salutations?’ ‘Salutations are greetings,’ said the voice. ‘When I say “salutations,” it’s just my fancy way of saying hello or good morning.’”  It’s how Charlotte meets Wilbur.

The End of Violence

Or God isn't Angry: A Good Friday Sermon

Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

Photo Credit: freestocks.org Flickr via Compfight cc

The last words Jesus utters from the cross, that means of execution by the Romans, are simply: “It is finished.”   It is complete.  Accomplished.  The work he came to do both in and for this world as the Son of the Living God has been done.  And, implicit in the Greek, there is also the sense of a new beginning, a start of something that has been waiting to spring up around us, much like the sight of those first sprouts of a germinating seed.

God’s Godforsaken Son

Based on St. Matthew's Passion

Truly this man was God’s Son.”  The centurion and those with him make this realization once their deed is done—after Jesus takes his last breath, and the earth trembles and graves open and risen saints emerge. “Truly this man was God’s Son.”

Photo Credit: Lawrence OP Flickr via Compfight cc

The only words Jesus himself speaks from the time of his trial before Pilate to his last breath is that plaintive cry: “Eli, Eli, lema sabachtani.” “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?”   These final statements from Matthew’s crucifixion scene stand in stark juxtaposition to one another.  “Truly this was God’s Son” “Why have you forsaken me?”

How Our Past Clouds Our Vision

The Israelites get a bad rap.  They’ve been making their way through the desert, enduring hot days and miles of walking, and when they get to their campsite they can’t find fresh water anywhere.  Yes, they grumble.  But they’ve just spent the last 400 years of their history as slaves, and they thought that somehow things would be different, that they would no longer be pushed to their physical limits.  They want to be in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  Instead they’re at Rephidim, and there’s not a drop of water to be found.  And they’re thirsty.

Photo Credit: hugogravelpond Flickr via Compfight cc

So they complain to Moses, who in turn complains to God about the complaining Israelites without seeing the irony or the humor in it. “What shall I do with this people?” he cries out to God. “They are almost ready to stone me.”  God instructs Moses what he is to do.  He’s to gather the elders in the midst of the people, and take the staff with which he struck the Nile, and go.  When he gets to the rock at Horeb, he’s to strike it with the same staff and water will come forth.  Moses does as the Lord commanded him and water flowed out for the people.  And they changed the name of the place to Massah and Meribah, because the people quarreled (Massah) and tested (Meribah) the Lord.  They wanted to know if God was indeed among them or not.

A sermon based on Exodus 17:1-7.

But which of us wouldn’t be panicky if we showed up at the intended destination and there was no water to be found?  Some of the campsites at State Parks in Massachusetts don’t have potable water, and they make sure you know that before you reserve a spot for a night or two.  “Fresh water is not available for showers or drinking. Remember, campers should bring at least 1 gallon drinking water per person, per day.” Which isn’t too big of a deal you might think, except that these instructions are for campsites on the islands in Boston Harbor and you can’t just pop over to a local Kwik-E-Mart  and grab some bottled water after the ferry has left you behind.  You’re then in the same predicament as those Israelites, and I suspect that grumbling wouldn’t be far behind, especially if your buddy did the trip planning and forgot to tell you about the water.

Faith and Transformation

Why utter decay leads to life

Since September I’ve been preaching a series on the marks of a 21st century disciple.  At times I’ve included the line explicitly, “This and such is a mark of a 21st century disciple.”  At times I’ve been slightly less direct, moving around something that defines the life of a disciple, looking at it from different angles, without spelling it out quite so specifically.  (Part of that is due to my background as a writer and not wanting to repeat the same sentence or its variant every single Sunday. That would get old.)

Photo Credit: godrudy6661 Flickr via Compfight cc

On this Sunday our Biblical texts serve up faith, and even those who are not followers of Jesus could probably tell you that it is one of the key characteristics of a disciple.  Faith.  Or perhaps belief, but not the belief in something as true — “I believe that this church building is made of stone” or “I believe in the law of gravity” — but rather the belief that something will happen in the future, something that has not happened yet— like “I believe the Sox will win the Series this year”—and never losing hope, even when it looks like it won’t take place.  In the Greek it’s pistis, and besides faith and believe it also gets translated as assurance, fidelity and trust. Something that is sure and true.  Something promised.

A sermon based on Romans 4:1-17.

Any preacher who begins talking about faith sooner or later pulls out the epistle to the Hebrews, Chapter 11.  The writer of that letter—whoever she is—gives a fantastic litany of the faith of our forebears, and begins with this definition.  “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Or as Eugene Patterson pens it in the Message Bible, “The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd.”  All of this is a backdrop for this morning.

Return to the Lord

An Ash Wednesday Sermon

The prophet Joel implores us today with these words from the Lord. “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”

This holy and sacred season of Lent is an invitation from the Church for all of us to return to the Lord.  To seek out spiritual practices; engage in personal reflection; share our resources with others; read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the words of Scripture; seek forgiveness through repentance; and make our way back home to God.

A sermon based on Joel 2

Because it’s easy to get distracted and get off track. It’s easy to get sucked in by what Frederick Buechner terms “the great blaring, boring, banal voice of our mass culture, which threatens to deafen us.”  It drowns out that still small voice of God that Elijah heard in the utter silence.  It distracts us, turning our attention away from God and the things that draw us closer to God.  And so we need to make time in our lives to intentionally return, to re-center, refocus, and re-establish our connection with God.  To realistically face ourselves and where we have been and where we are.  To see those patterns that pull us away from God, and make amends.

Listen to Jesus—Don’t Be Afraid

A Sermon on Painting, Hiking and Getting Up

It pays to pay attention to words. 

Good writers make sure that the words they use illuminate the story or the idea they intend to communicate.  Placement matters.  Words and phrases are carefully chosen and given their order for a reason.

Photo Credit: Chris Blakeley Flickr via Compfight cc

Saint Matthew is a good writer.  We can visualize the scene he’s describing for us; Jesus, Peter, James and John head up a mountain by themselves, slowly hiking up the trail.  Once they reach the top, Jesus changes before them. His clothes become dazzling white.  His face shines brightly.  And then two others instantly appear and begin speaking with him.  Matthew tells us it’s Moses and Elijah—they represent the Law and the Prophets, the foundation of Holy Scripture. 

A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany based on Matthew 17:1-9.

Peter gets all gushy and proclaims that it would be spectacular if he and the Zebedee boys could build a few shelters for Jesus and his friends.  And while he’s still exuberantly speaking, the fog rolls in.  However, rather than dimming things down, it shines brightly too.  Suddenly a voice from the cloud declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” 

Taking the Long View

Choosing Compassion and Hope

During my senior year of college I ran across a passage from Mark Twain from his autobiography about how he always preached in his humor, and that because of this humor would live forever, that is to say, about thirty years.  He was comparing himself to other humorists who had gone before whom the world had forgotten because they didn’t do this.  And then he concluded: “I am saying these vain things in this frank way because I am dead person speaking from the grave.  Even I would be too modest to say them in life.  I think we never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead— and not then until we have been dead years and years.  People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier.”  It was that last paragraph that stunned me.  About people ought-ing to start dead.  About how we aren’t our entire and honest selves in this life, in the present time.

Photo Credit: David Gabriel Fischer Flickr via Compfight cc

And so on this Sunday I stand before you not as the me in the here and now, but the me in the future.  Nine years from now, to be exact, on February 8, 2026.  When these same lessons will be read once more in these walls, and I will climb the steps to this pulpit to proclaim the good news to the congregation assembled on that day. 

The Call to be Disciples in our Day

Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.

January has become a time for me to look back and take stock.  Not because of the New Year—frankly I rarely do New Year’s Resolutions, and certainly not ones involving diet as the 12 Days of Christmas aren’t over yet, and Melissa’s birthday is January 5th.  (Let me assure you, celebrating your beloved’s birthday by skipping the cake is not a good idea.)  Rather, January includes a ministry trifecta for me including my priestly ordination, my arrival here at St. Mark’s and our annual meeting.  So I tend to reread my ordination vows and the sermon my friend Rich preached on that day a dozen years ago; I dust off my very first sermon preached from this pulpit 6 years ago; and I look at the previous year on iCal, or rather, “Calendar” as the folks at Apple are now calling it.

Photo Credit: trustypics Flickr via Compfight cc

On that snowy Sunday 12 years ago when I became a priest my colleague and mentor Rich Simpson said this to me: “First: you are called to preach the gospel. There are many in the Church today—on all sides of the theological debates we are engaged in—who are so desperate and so scared that we are in danger of suffering from a kind of spiritual amnesia about what that true calling is all about. As preachers we are not called to defend an ideology (either on the right or on the left) but to preach the good news of Jesus Christ.

“Do so with courage and conviction, trusting that it really is the path toward abundant life. Too many preachers are afraid to trust the gospel because it will upset the status quo. Fear is the greatest enemy of the gospel: fear of lost pledges, fear of empty pews, fear of disappointing the bishop. Don’t be afraid to trust the good news, and know that the true measure of your ‘success’ will not be found by how full or empty the pews are or how well the annual pledge drive goes or what your colleagues say about you.”

Living the gospel of Jesus does indeed lead us to fullness of life.  And it is not easy.  It challenges us to choose compassion over indifference, the welfare of others over ourselves, love over fear.  It is far, far too easy to imagine that this business of being a Christian is about us.  About punching our ticket to get to heaven and then skipping along merrily on our way.  Or that it’s there to use as a designation when convenient but without much allegiance.  Or to imagine God as a cosmic vending machine only to get what we want.  But the call of the gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, does not focus on us.  The focus centers on Jesus himself, on the Living God, and his light which draws all people to him and his gift of forgiveness, redemption, grace, and abundant life.  As disciples of Jesus, we have the privilege to share in that call.

My priestly ministry has been shaped by Rich’s call to preach the gospel bravely.  Six years ago this month I stood before you with joy and apprehension wondering what the days—and years—ahead might entail.  My first sermon to you ended with these words: “Jesus is inviting us into a better story.  He wants us to follow him and live a life that is so much more than the ones we live by ourselves.  He encourages us to come and see now, not to stand on the sidelines waiting for some elusive future moment.   When we engage fully in the things of God, we not only live a better story, we also work with God as co-participants in transforming the world.

“What kind of life is Christ inviting us into as a parish in the days ahead?  What role will you take?  There will be challenges to be sure—those first followers have no idea of either the great joys or great sorrows in store for them—but it takes those things to make a good story. 

“I am tremendously hopeful and confident about the future of St. Mark’s and the work and life we will engage in together as we seek to authentically serve Christ.  Jesus has come into this neighborhood too, and invites us to follow him.  The journey before us is about to begin, and I hope you will join with me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, as we come and see where he will lead us.”

That’s been the work we’ve been about the past 6 years.  How to live as disciples.  How to live into Jesus’ call to follow him.  Throughout that time we’ve focused on ways we could Connect, Grow and Serve—those marks of discipleship.  How we could deepen our relationships with God and each other welcoming others into our midst; how we could strengthen our understanding of faith and the way of Jesus; and how we could serve alongside our neighbors living out the Good News. 

Work that we continued this past year.  We rectors like to use our annual meeting sermon as a sort-of “State of the Parish” address, ticking off accomplishments from the year gone by and then mentioning those that we hope to accomplish in the year ahead.  But that smacks a little bit of the “success” Rich warned me about focusing on.  I’m going to let you do that work yourself by reading through our Annual Report if you haven’t already, and focus on just two things from this past year. 

First our Youth Group.  We’ve watched our youth program grow significantly in recent years and flourish under the steady leadership of Melissa LaBelle with significant help from Kristin Romine and many others. We had 23 teens and adults travel to Harrisburg this past July to clean and sort and love and talk and feed the people of that community sharing Christ’s love.  This Fall we had a huge influx of 6th grade students, including many from outside our church who have been invited by friends to join.  These teens feel accepted and find a safe place to be themselves, have fun and learn about the way of Jesus.  And it has grown beyond the abilities to manage on a volunteer basis.  We have begun a search for a Youth Director and are committed to invest in this group of important and beloved members of our community.  Children and youth are not the church of tomorrow, they are the church of today.  Their gifts and ideas about the faith make a significant difference in our life together, and we will continue to love them and value their contributions to our parish, inviting them into all aspects of ministry.

Second, our Neighbors for Peace initiative.  A year ago we began a journey toward getting to know our Muslim neighbors.  We’ve had meals together, gotten to know one another through conversations and worshipped together this past Thanksgiving.  My life has been enlarged by these interactions.  These connections need to be solidified in the year ahead, especially in light of the recent direction of our political administration.  Let me be clear, refusing refugees, marking people out based on their faith, and vilifying the other based on ethnicity is antithetical to the way of Jesus.  We are called to live into Jesus’ call, life and teachings, and it is my intent that we continue to do so. This work has become much more important than ever before, and we will continue it with vigor in the days ahead.

Which is the center point of our reading from the prophet Micah today.  After asking if God wants the sacrifice of animals, the offering of rivers of oil poured out before the Almighty, or even the giving our our firstborn, we get this response:  He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Do justice.  Love kindness.  Walk humbly with our God.  As followers of the Living Word, we must accomplish the work of his justice in the world by lifting up and caring for the lowly.  As those who journey in the Way, we are called to delight in mercy and kindness to all people including those who are very different from us.  As disciples of Jesus, we need to spend our days walking with humility in devotion to our God whose desires for us are summed up in two simple commands: Love God and love your neighbor.  And in case we missed the point, Jesus shows us in the parable of the Good Samaritan that everyone is our neighbor.  No one is excluded.

As followers of Jesus, we are people of the Word and of the Table.  What we hear and do leads us back to the altar—to the Eucharist—to be fed and reminded of the self-giving love of Jesus.  As his body in the world, we are called to do the same.  Rob Bell writes, “Our destiny, our future, and our joy are in the Eucharist, using whatever blessing we’ve received, whatever resources, talents, skills and passions God has given us, to make the world a better place.”  (Bell, Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 162)  The Gospel compels us to share the message of hope that Jesus has given to us.  To be a blessing to the world.  To work for justice, to respect the dignity of every human being and to love God faithfully.  Friends, we have been doing that work these past years together and before us lies much more work to do. 

And so we press on.  We move ever forward into the way of Jesus.  We work for the kingdom of God which Jesus ushered into our world and which will finally be realized on the day of his return.  Until that day we will not lose hope, trusting in Jesus Christ and the unsurpassable love of God for our world and continuing our journey forward as his disciples.  May it be so.  Amen.

Getting Lost by Following Jesus

Disbanding the armies in our lives

What does it mean for us to follow Jesus?  That’s the question before us today as we watch Jesus come alongside these fishermen on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Peter and Andrew were casting a net into the water, Matthew tells us, when Jesus walks by and says “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people,” and they do.  Just up the road another pair of brothers also fish, and he presumably says something similar to them.  They also follow him, leaving behind both the boat and their father without even a second thought.

Photo Credit: Jan R.Ubels Flickr via Compfight cc

From that place, we’re told, “Jesus went throughout Galilee teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and and every sickness among the people.”  And these four, Andrew, James, John and Peter travel with him.